Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Jesus the King Luke 23 33-43

Crucifixion was often chosen as a punishment for those who pretended to be other than they were: slaves who tried to runaway to freedom, rebels who pretended to be national heroes. Irony was part of the punishment. There is evidence that the more arrogant or fanciful the criminal, the higher his cross. Thus Jesus was placed between the two other criminals in the place of emphasis, and it may not be simply an artistic convention that his cross stood higher too. Above his head stood that ironic inscription “This is the King of the Jews”. So his being lifted up was in itself a mock exaltation, and the sedilla, on which he sat on the cross was a mock throne. A similar notion has survived into our modern culture in such films as “’Ang ‘em high”.

It is in this context that Jesus was fair game also for the criminals executed alongside him. In the extremity of their condition they could always mock the king. They were rebels after all. Their expectations of kings were low. “Save yourself” the crowd cries. It was then all the more remarkable for one of them to acknowledge his punishment as deserved, and to treat Jesus’s alleged kingship with seriousness rather than sarcasm. The sublime reply of Jesus, “This day you will be with me in paradise” takes us all straight from a death scene into an enthronement. By such a statement Jesus marks out his kingdom in wider terms than Pilate or even the thief. He who has been lifted up upon a cross as a pretender to the throne of the Jews announces himself King of all the world. He is King of all peoples, all cultures, a universal king not just for one time but for eternity. As King of all humanity he hung on the cross representing the whole of humanity. When he was crucified it was as if everything God had made was crucified with him. The king was the representative of all he reigned over so if he was king of the universe then all the world hung on that tree. All humanity was lifted up in him. For Luke, the crucifixion of Jesus is not a payment for people's sins. He omits Mark's famous quotation "For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many" Rather, Jesus's healings and offers of forgiveness are a proclamation of God's reign and God's comprehensive saving purpose. Salvation is restoration of God's people through the forgiveness of sins. Jesus' death was the opportunity though which God's authority would be manifest. "With the promise to be ushered into paradise there is the suggestion of a return to an Edenic quality of time - time which is…..always new, always just created". It is of course scandalous that Jesus enters into his kingdom hand in hand with a rebel. It is a scandal that perfectly fits the scandalous agenda of the Magnificat and the sermon at Nazareth. It is simply an extension of the scandal of the woman who burst into Simon’s dinner party and is commended for her love and the transformation of Zacchaeus.

Nor is the kingdom to be further delayed. The words “This day” announce its arrival without equivocation. That is why Luke is happy to have Joseph of Arimathea turn from burying Jesus into the dawning of the Sabbath. The day of salvation was here. The reign of Jesus had begun. Once the Sabbath was over Jesus would be seen to be risen. What Matthew describes with an earthquake Luke describes with a dawn.

In Mark’s and Matthew’s account, Jesus dies alone with a cry of anguish. In Luke he dies in fellowship with the one alongside him, not in anguish but with a voice of authority he hands his life back to his Father. It is not quite the equivalent of the triumphant death recorded by John, but it is nearer to that than to the account Mark. The innocent verdict announced by Pilate is repeated by the centurion and the crowds return home beating their breasts in repentance. This has been no empty death: already its saving purpose is finding fulfillment. God’s forgiveness has been unlocked and lives are being changed.

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